Man/Miracle Pares Down and Gets Loose 

A promising Oakland garage outfit now has the looseness of a trio, and the heft of a much larger band.

Singer Dylan Travis, of the Oakland band Man/Miracle, has the kind of darkly romantic look that makes some people swoon and others flinch. His face is a mesmerizingly perfect oval; his eyes are dusky; his flannel shirts and pageboy haircuts seem fashionably rumpled and tousled. He sings in a resonant bellow. And he held court with particular flair at the Uptown Nightclub last Friday, when Man/Miracle headlined a lineup of local garage acts. The crowd was just sparse enough that you could come right up to the stage, bat your eyes at the singer, and feel jilted.

Of all the bands to emerge from Oakland's indie scene in recent years, Man/Miracle is one of the most promising. It certainly has more musical depth than the average four-tet. Or three-tet, rather. The band started out with standard four-piece instrumentation, but bassist Brian Kennedy departed recently, leaving guitarist Emery Barter to handle the bass parts. Barter acclimated by tuning his guitar an octave lower, so the band could get by with three core members.

It's actually an improvement. Barter has the flexibility to provide bass for Travis' lead guitar, but the two can also play interlocking melodies, and let the drums anchor them. Travis incorporates a small synthesizer on some songs, and drummer Tyler Corelitz uses triggered samples to help fill out the sound. Thus, they have the looseness of a trio, but create the illusion of a much larger band.

And judging from the mostly ardent response at Uptown, it works. Shoegaze audiences generally show appreciation by dancing from the neck up, so there was certainly a lot of that — and even some real dancing, on songs like "Hot Sprawl." The crowd was fairly thin when Man/Miracle came on at midnight, but it gradually swoll to a decent size. Women wore unfortunate skirt-boot combinations. Men wore the Dylan Travis uniform of calf-length shorts and Toms slip-on shoes. Video projections behind the band showed images of giant jellybeans, balloons, and kaleidoscopic patterns. They apparently weren't choreographed; Barter later explained that a friend had come in that night and offered to visually interpret the show. But from an audience perspective, you'd never know.

The music of Man/Miracle is notably warm and consonant, buoyed by taut vocal harmonies and the anxious, beseeching tone of Travis' lyrics. Some of the band's melody lines would easily qualify as ear candy. Others are sharp, fast, and zigzagged. "Hot Sprawl" starts off with a clean, swoopy guitar riff, laid over a martial rock beat. The riffs on "Low Hanging Fruit" are closer to thrash or surf rock, and the song's sheer velocity allows Travis to build to a wail on the chorus. "Meditations on Nothing" is another hair-trigger dream-pop number, shaped in equal parts by Barter's tidy guitar lines and the up-down bobble of Travis' voice.

Man/Miracle actually formed back in 2006, under the name "Bear on Bear." Travis and Corelitz met at UC Santa Cruz, where they began playing with two other original members — Kennedy on bass, and Ian Benedetti on guitar. Initially, Travis handled the bulk of the songwriting, but now it's split about evenly, said Barter, who would eventually replace Benedetti. The current iteration has allowed the band to reach a pretty high standard, at least in terms of musicianship.

That could simply be a reflection of work ethic. At this point, Corelitz and Travis have played together for five years, and Barter, an Oberlin grad who also plays in a progressive rock trio called Quinn, is an extremely nimble guitarist. The band currently has one album released on the indie label Third Culture Records, and an EP slated to drop some time in the next few weeks. It just embarked on a month-long national tour that includes the Hop Scotch Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina, and caps off September 23 in San Francisco.

With the next spate of opportunities lined up, the future bodes well for Man/Miracle. It's got the look, the style, the musical depth, the cryptic lyrics, the waifish lead singer, and the intricate guitar parts. All it lacks now is that je ne sais quoi. Travis doesn't gab a lot or josh his audience between songs, which might explain why he seems so aloof. The band ploughed through 8 songs in 45 minutes, with a fierceness that didn't always translate into rock-star stage presence. It's fairly comfortable in the new trio formation, but not ready to go off-script.

Still, Barter has high hopes. "I think that less conventional instrumentation makes the band sound more interesting," he said after the show, hinting that once the group fully adapts to power-trio form, it will be as electrifying in flesh as it is on record. Within a year Travis could be wielding his powers of seduction on a much grander scale. It wouldn't take a miracle.

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